Growing up, my mom was a huge fan of the “this will do” purchase. If there were two pairs of jeans, one on sale, the other not, she always opted for the one that was on sale. Never mind that the two weren’t the same cut, the same color, or that the more expensive one fit better. She was a frugalista (read more about my mom’s frugality hacks here). She knew how to make it work.
This worked for me growing up because I wasn’t a picky child. Sure, there were times I had a preference or wanted to buy a $10 graphic tee that wasn’t on sale (damn, back “in the day” graphic tees were only $10?!), which my mom indulged every so often, but the majority of the time, we only shopped the clearance rack.
I pretty much wore whatever my mom bought me. But inevitably, I caught the fashion bug in college. Suddenly, my mom’s picks weren’t good enough, and I ventured alone into the fast fashion retail world. The only issue was I was still using the “this will do” mentality, when the very fact that I wanted to break free of my mom’s choices proved that wasn’t going to work.
I’ve made many a bad purchase. One that stands out in my mind is this horrendous yellow scoop neck top with a chiffon bow that did not go with my skin tone at all. But I bought it because it was on sale and it was cute.
“This Will Do”/”Make It Work”/”Good Enough” Mentality
You can walk out of Forever 21 with five clearance items that seem to fill gaps in your closet. Maybe you see a couple summery blouses that look cute on the rack and are dirt cheap and think, These would be great for summer and I’m sure I have some skirts they’ll go with!
The issue with these purchases is my mindset: I’ll make this fit into my life. I don’t have a specific role or plan for it. It’s just so cheap or so cute [on the rack] or such a good deal (fell for this one more times than I’d like to admit) that I must have it! I just have a loose plan based on a one-second snapshot of how I think it could fit with the things I already own.
You aren’t Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters! The shoe ain’t gonna fit — just accept it.
But I’m Saving Money, What’s the Big Deal?
If I buy a top on sale, I can’t just say, “I’ll wear it with a skirt or even just a pair of jeans!” If I make a non-specific plan, I’m not going to realize that the color doesn’t go with any skirts I own. Or that it’s too long to actually wear with jeans. Or I’m not going to realize that the top is high-maintenance, easily wrinkled, and I hate ironing, so then I’ll never wear it.
This isn’t necessarily an argument for quality vs quantity. It’s about buying the item you have a plan for, the item you’ll make use of. There are plenty of wrinkly tops at high-fashion retailers. And there are plenty of non-wrinkly tops at Forever 21.
This also isn’t an argument for buying only what you need. If we just bought what we need, well, we probably wouldn’t even be having this problem! Technically anything will work…but the entire point of financial freedom is being able to freely enjoy things you like, regardless of if they’re a want or need. The point is, don’t buy what you don’t even want.
How to Buy What You Actually Want
1. Be Brutally Honest With Yourself
Think of your needs. You have to ask yourself what really prevents you from using something. This differs for everyone, so you have to be really honest with yourself.
I HATE cord management. I will buy something and not use it if I know I have to waste my time getting cords untangled and set up. That’s why if I’m buying any electric appliance, I make sure there’s some sort of cord management. I use my cordless vacuum cleaner SO MUCH MORE then I would ever use a corded one. It’s just easier to take out of the closet and get going with.
Some people are the opposite of me, maybe they hate having to take out the battery of a cordless vacuum and charge it! It all depends on YOU, which is why it’s really important to know yourself.
Other examples: I’m lazy and need to be comfortable — I hate ironing. I rarely dry clean. I hate stiff pants. I hate tops that feel tight around my shoulders. I hate kitchen appliances that have multiple pieces that need disassembling to be cleaned.
I need clothes I don’t need to iron, dry clean, and that are reasonably comfortable. I once bought a pair of jeans that fit really well, they made my butt look great, they made my waist look small, and they were on sale. Check, check, check. But they were really stiff. I dreaded wearing them, and so when faced with the reality they’d be uncomfortable every morning, I never chose to wear them over other jeans I owned. The list goes on.
2. Does It Fit Your Needs? How? Make a Friggin Plan!
A Shopping Dealbreakers checklist or note in your phone about the above (read: your needs) may be helpful to remind you of your Must Haves when you’re making a purchase.
Beyond making sure it passes your Dealbreakers, you should make a very specific reason for purchasing. How will you use the purchase? Does it need some other condition to be met to use it? What’s going to stop you from using it?
3. Buy It At The Time You Need It +/- A Sale Searching Period
I’m someone who used to be really tempted by end-of-season sales. The end of winter is the best time to buy winter clothes for next year, and the end of summer is the best time to buy for the following summer. Yes, there are great savings to be had everywhere!
The issue with shopping this way is that we constantly fool ourselves into thinking we have a purpose for some item. We even get to put off the question of how exactly we’re going to use it since we buy it an entire season ahead of time. By then, the high of the purchase is long gone (along with the intention to put the item to use).
I rarely specifically shop sales anymore for this exact reason. If I already have something bookmarked in my mind, I’ll wait two weeks to one month to stake out a deal that’s good. I buy a little closer to retail price because I don’t wait until something is on absolute clearance. I wait for a coupon or smaller sale with the guarantee that I’ll actually use the item when I have a clear purpose for it.
4. The One You Use Is The One That’s Worth The Money
I think we’ve all been in that position where we really wanted something, but it was just a little out of our price range, so we ended up buying a cheaper version of it.
Sometimes this works out, and other times — probably most times — the fact that it wasn’t exactly what we wanted causes us to buy multiple cheaper versions of the same thing in hopes that all the different attributes we liked in the original will manifest in each cheaper one we bought. But none of them are “exactly it.”
Solution? Just buy the one you want (within reason!). It’ll cost you less mental energy in the long run. Don’t buy something for the sole reason that it’s cheaper or there’s a better sale on it.
This weekend, I placed an order for two crop tops at Outdoor Voices. I went there for the two crop tops. I had been sitting on the decision to purchase these for weeks. But when I got there, I saw they had a crop top + legging kit for $100. The leggings alone were $70 and the crop tops are usually $50. It was a way better deal to get the combo! I can’t say I wasn’t tempted. I waffled for a good 10 minutes. But what was I going to do with these $70 leggings? I already have all the leggings I need/want.
I owned a ridiculous number of laptops before my current MacBook Pro. I bought tons of laptops in the past that were on sale. But I’m a power user — I run 30+ tabs at a time while photoshopping! Not to mention, I was trying to get into web development, and the ecosystem is infinitely easier to set up on a Mac compared to a Windows computer (this was a well-known fact).
I have no idea why I kept buying these cheaper Windows laptops that didn’t work at all with what I needed them for. Okay, I do — I just couldn’t swallow paying that much for a computer up front, and instead just bought three different laptops that were almost the same price combined anyways.
Don’t take free stuff you won’t use just because it’s free. Don’t buy something just because it’s cheap. Don’t force yourself to eat if you’re too full to finish just because you’re paying for it. Don’t force yourself to box up leftovers of a dish you absolutely hated just because you paid for it. These are still things I struggle with, but I’m much better about it. Buy what serves your exact purpose, whatever the purpose is. Period.
Do you struggle with buying what you actually want? What are your methods for combatting bad shopping habits?
Jing is an SF transplant, software engineer, and personal finance blogger. She’s weathered clueless spending, not-so-fun-employment, and a cross-country career change. You can find her documenting her financial wins and mishaps over at Millennial Money Diaries.
Image via Unsplash